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Does 3 Nephi 28:10 Teach that Humans Can Become Gods?

Does 3 Nephi 28:10 Teach that Humans Can Become Gods?

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The Book of Mormon contains no statements affirming directly or clearly the Mormon doctrine that human beings are of the same species or kind of being as God, or that they may become gods. Yet this is a basic element of Mormon doctrine. To overcome this disparity, Mormon theologians have been forced to find subtle hints of the doctrine in this or that passage in the Book of Mormon. According to Daniel C. Peterson, a leading BYU scholar, that doctrine was “implicit…though perhaps unnoticed, in the Book of Mormon,”1 in the following statement that the Book of Mormon attributes to Jesus:

“And ye shall sit down in the kingdom of my Father; yea, your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy; and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; and the Father and I are one” (3 Nephi 28:10).

Peterson offers the following reasoning for construing this passage to teach that people can become “like the Father”:

When we apply the transitive law of mathematics to this passage — according to which, if “a” equals “b” and “b” equals “c,” it follows necessarily that “a” equals “c” — the conclusion is inescapable that, if humans can be like the exalted Christ, and if the exalted Christ is like the Father, then humans can be like the Father.

Peterson is not the first Mormon to find the doctrine of becoming gods implicit in this verse. For example, BYU professor Clyde Williams claimed that Jesus’ promise to the three Nephites “was a sure promise to mortal men that they could become gods.”2 Monte Nyman, another BYU professor, likewise claimed that “to become ‘even as I am, and I even as the Father,’ is to become as God or to become a God.”3 Mormon anthropologist Brant Gardner, in his commentary on the Book of Mormon, appears to agree: “Part of the Three Nephites’ blessing is that they will achieve perfection, becoming like the Father and Son.”4

Becoming Like God Does Not Mean Becoming Gods

Few if any of the essential elements of the Mormon doctrine of exaltation or eternal progression can be shown to be implicit in this passage. Nothing here so much as hints that God has not always been God, that he was a man like us before becoming God, that he is an exalted man, that human beings preexisted the world as God’s spirit children in heaven, or that we became physical beings as a stepping stone to becoming gods like the Father. One must go beyond what the text says in context to read into it even the notion that human beings can become like the Father in all essential respects.

All orthodox Christians agree that people can and should become “like” God the Father in some respects. For example, Peter tells us that we should be holy like God (1 Peter 1:15-16). The question is whether human beings can become like God in every respect. Frankly, 3 Nephi 28:10 says nothing of the sort. It is easy to see how one might think so if one takes the line “and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; and the Father and I are one” out of context. Consider, for example, Paul’s statement, “I wish that all people were even as I am myself” (1 Cor. 7:7). Does this mean that Paul wished that all people were middle-aged men with poor vision? Does it mean that Paul wished that all people were Jewish, or that they all spoke Greek, or that they all traveled around without a permanent home? Of course not. To understand Paul’s statement, all we have to do is read it in context. When he said that he wished all people were like him, he meant he wished all people could be single and therefore free of the distractions of marriage (see vv. 8-24).

Likewise, if we want to understand the statement in 3 Nephi 28:10 correctly, we need to read it in context. The first step in this endeavor is to find out to whom Jesus was supposedly speaking. According to the text, Jesus was giving a special promise to “the three” (v. 4), that is, three of the twelve Nephite disciples. However, some of what the text reports Jesus saying might apply only to them and other things to some or even many others. Again, the verse needs to be read carefully in context.

Receiving Fullness of Joy Does Not Mean Becoming Gods

Next, we need to take a closer look at what the text says Jesus promised the three. The special promise the text says he made to them were that they would never die or feel physical pain, remaining alive until the consummation of the kingdom of God (vv. 6-9). This promise obviously is presented as something distinctive about them, distinguishing them from other Nephite believers. At the end of the age, the three Nephites would sit down in the Father’s kingdom, experience “fulness of joy,” and “be even as” Jesus was (v. 10). These are spectacular promises, but they fall far short of promising that the three would become gods of the same essential nature as Jesus and the Father. They appear to refer to the completion of the salvation that they will have in common with all of the righteous.

When the text goes on to quote Jesus as saying, “and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; and the Father and I are one,” this seems to mean in context that the three disciples will share the same joy that Jesus and the Father share. That this is the meaning is evident from the close connection between the statement and the one that comes immediately before it: “your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy.” In other words, the text means that the disciples will be like Jesus and the Father because they will be full of joy just as Jesus and the Father are full of joy. The Father and Jesus are “one” in their joy, and so will the disciples be one in their joy.

Moreover, the reason given in the text as to why they will have “fulness of joy” is that through them people will be saved: “…ye have desired that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand. And for this cause ye shall have fulness of joy” (3 Ne. 28:9b-10). This “fulness of joy” will make them like Jesus and the Father because they also find joy in saving people. We know this is the point because the previous chapter quotes Jesus as saying so:

"And now, behold, my joy is great, even unto fulness, because of you, and also this generation; yea, and even the Father rejoiceth, and also all the holy angels, because of you and this generation; for none of them are lost. Behold, I would that ye should understand; for I mean them who are now alive of this generation; and none of them are lost; and in them I have fulness of joy" (3 Ne. 27:30-31).

In context, then, 3 Nephi 28 is not saying that the three Nephites will become gods, or that they will become beings with the same divine attributes as Jesus and the Father. Rather, it is saying that they will sit down in the Father’s kingdom full of joy, like Jesus and the Father, because of all the people they will be able to help bring to salvation. All redeemed human beings can, like God, have fullness of joy, but the only human being of whom it may be truly said that he has “the fullness of the divine nature” is Jesus Christ (Col. 2:9).

Does Sitting Down in the Kingdom Mean Becoming Gods?

One might suppose that the promise of sitting down in the Father’s kingdom was a way of referring to an especially glorious, privileged status reserved only for the most faithful and exalted believers. However, at least in the Book of Mormon, this is not the case. Rather, to sit down in the future kingdom means to be saved and live forever, as opposed to suffering eternal damnation. This is the meaning of sitting down in God’s kingdom throughout the Book of Mormon:

And now I ask of you, my brethren, how will any of you feel, if ye shall stand before the bar of God, having your garments stained with blood and all manner of filthiness? Behold, what will these things testify against you? Behold will they not testify that ye are murderers, yea, and also that ye are guilty of all manner of wickedness? Behold, my brethren, do ye suppose that such an one can have a place to sit down in the kingdom of God, with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob, and also all the holy prophets, whose garments are cleansed and are spotless, pure and white? I say unto you, Nay; except ye make our Creator a liar from the beginning, or suppose that he is a liar from the beginning, ye cannot suppose that such can have place in the kingdom of heaven; but they shall be cast out for they are the children of the kingdom of the devil. (Alma 5:22-25)

And may the Lord bless you, and keep your garments spotless, that ye may at last be brought to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the holy prophets who have been ever since the world began, having your garments spotless even as their garments are spotless, in the kingdom of heaven to go no more out. (Alma 7:25)

I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction. Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience…. And now may God grant unto these, my brethren, that they may sit down in the kingdom of God; yea, and also all those who are the fruit of their labors that they may go no more out, but that they may praise him forever. (Alma 29:4-5, 17)

For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked. And this I know, because the Lord hath said he dwelleth not in unholy temples, but in the hearts of the righteous doth he dwell; yea, and he has also said that the righteous shall sit down in his kingdom, to go no more out; but their garments should be made white through the blood of the Lamb (Alma 34:35-36; cf. also 38:15).

Yea, thus we see that the gate of heaven is open unto all, even to those who will believe on the name of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God. Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful, which shall divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil, and lead the man of Christ in a strait and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wicked— And land their souls, yea, their immortal souls, at the right hand of God in the kingdom of heaven, to sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and with Jacob, and with all our holy fathers, to go no more out. (Helaman 3:28-30)

Notice that in these passages one faces two stark alternatives: sitting down in the kingdom of God, or being cast out as members of the kingdom of the devil, going to death and destruction and the misery that will engulf the wicked. The Book of Mormon knows nothing of the three heavenly kingdoms and all of the other layers and nuances of Joseph Smith’s later doctrines about the afterlife. In the Book of Mormon, people are either wicked or righteous, belonging to the kingdom of the devil or the kingdom of God, doomed to death and destruction or promised eternal life and happiness. This means that when the Book of Mormon represents Jesus as promising the three Nephites that they will sit down in the Father’s kingdom, it is simply referring to the same blessed eternal future anticipated for all of the righteous. It is not referring to them becoming exalted as gods. That was an idea that arose later in Joseph Smith’s theological development, along with his innovative doctrinal speculation that God the Father had become a God by passing through mortal life.

The Book of Mormon: No Restoration of a Doctrine of Becoming Gods

Whatever 3 Nephi 28:10 means, it was not the revelation of an ancient doctrine of becoming gods that Christianity had lost and was now being restored through Joseph Smith’s publication of the Book of Mormon. In reality, there is nothing new in 3 Nephi 28:10. The speech attributed to Jesus (3 Ne. 28:6-11) consists, except for verse 9, almost entirely of a pastiche of biblical phrases attributed to Jesus in the Book of Mormon. Most of these biblical phrases come from Matthew 24-25, 1 Corinthians 15, and the writings of John:

3 Nephi 28:7-11

New Testament Allusions

“…even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father,

when I shall come in my glory

with the powers of heaven” (v. 7).

the powers of the heavens shall be shaken… they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory…. This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (Matt. 24:29-30, 34).

“And ye shall never endure the pains of death; but when I shall come in my glory

ye shall be changed

in the twinkling of an eye

 

from mortality to immortality” (v. 8).

“We shall not all sleep,

but

we shall all be changed,

in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye

and we shall be changed.

For…this mortal must put on immortality

(1 Cor. 15:51-53).

“And then shall ye be blessed

in the kingdom of my Father” (v. 8b).

“Come, ye blessed of my Father,

inherit the kingdom” (Matt. 25:34).

“…your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy;

and ye shall be even as I am,

and I am even as the Father;

and the Father and I are one” (v. 10).

“that your joy may be full” (John 16:24)

“They are not of the world,

even as I am not of the world…. that they may be one, even as we are one (John 17:13-14, 22).

I and my Father are one” (John 10:10).

“And the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me” (v. 11a).

“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (1 John 5:7).

The speech attributed to Jesus in this Book of Mormon passage contains clear allusions to sayings of Jesus in Matthew and John. Of course, if Jesus said something to his Jewish disciples in Jerusalem, hypothetically he could have said the same thing to his Nephite disciples. However, it is unlikely that Jesus would put things in speaking to the Nephites in the same way he did when speaking to men from Galilee or Judea. For example, Jesus’ language about coming in glory assumes his listeners are familiar with the passage in Daniel 7:13-14 about the Son of Man. Yet the Nephites could not have known anything about the book of Daniel, which was written after the Nephites’ ancestors supposedly sailed to the Americas.

3 Nephi 28 also presents Jesus using the same language as a very distinctive passage in Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians, twenty years before Paul wrote that epistle! Worse still, Paul wrote that epistle to people of a pagan Greek cultural background, and he expressed himself in terms that were part of their cultural stock (especially the contrasting terms mortal and immortality). This means that one cannot explain the similarity between the two passages by speculating that Paul got the statement from Jesus. Rather, it is clear that the “Jesus” of the Book of Mormon got the statement from Paul. Of course, what that really means is that the author of the Book of Mormon borrowed the language from Paul in composing a speech for Jesus.

The point here is that the statement in 3 Nephi 28:10 is not an example of God restoring a lost ancient truth through Joseph Smith. What is true in this verse was never lost, and anything in it that might be new is of questionable truth. All the sophistication of contemporary Mormon scholarship cannot extract a restored doctrine of humans becoming gods from the Book of Mormon.

 

NOTES

 

1. Daniel C. Peterson, “Defending the Faith: Joseph Smith’s Restoration of ‘Theosis’ Was Miracle, Not Scandal,” Deseret News, 3 Aug. 2011.

2. Clyde J. Williams, “The Three Nephites and the Doctrine of Translation,” in The Book of Mormon: Third Nephi 9-30: “This Is My Gospel”, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr., Book of Mormon Symposium Series (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993; reprint, Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2008), 242.

3. Monte S. Nyman, Divine Ministry—The First Gospel: Jesus among the Nephites: Book of Mormon Commentary (Orem, UT: Granite Publishing and Distribution, 2003), 404.

4. Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 5:587.